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Ask the Food Doc: Coconut back in nutritional good graces

7 min read
Ask the Food Doc: Coconut back in nutritional good graces

Dear Food Doc: When I was in college, coconut oil was just about the worst thing there was. Now it seems like I’m seeing it in more and more products. It is even being promoted for its health properties. What has changed? Or were we wrong about coconut oil from the outset?

Answer: Step aside sriracha, move over kombucha, the coconut craze has arrived. We’re not talking about old-school coconut-flavored candy bars, cakes, or pies. There is an entire new generation of coconut products that have little in common with the traditional flaked or shredded versions.

This new wave of coconut products falls into three categories, coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut oil. Let’s first deconstruct the coconut to see how these products are made.

If you crack open a store-bought coconut, you will notice a small amount of slightly sweet fluid on the inside. This is the coconut water. Mature coconuts have just an ounce or two of this fluid, while younger coconuts contain a half-liter or more.

No one would have guessed a decade ago, but coconut water is now one of the most popular products in the beverage category. It is low in fat and calories and contains potassium and other electrolytes.

The other coconut-based beverage is coconut milk. It’s made by grating the fleshy interior portion of the coconut. That material is mixed with a small amount of water, and the so-called milk is extracted by pressing. Traditional coconut milk is high fat (20 percent), and most often used in cooking. It has long been a part of Indian and Asian cuisines.

In the past few years, lower fat versions of coconut milk have appeared alongside soy and other plant-based milks. They may be sweetened or flavored, and often contain thickening agents. Hence, Starbucks now features something called a Hazelnut Mocha Coconut Milk Macchiato.

Extracting the fat portion from the coconut meat yields coconut oil. This product also has a long culinary history, due to its excellent cooking and flavoring properties. If you like movie theatre popcorn, coconut oil is one of the main reasons.

Not all coconut oil is the same. When extracted without high heat or chemicals, it can be called virgin coconut oil. Like virgin olive oil, this product has more polyphenolics and a richer flavor than refined versions.

The major coconut-producing regions have long extolled the virtues of the coconut. It purportedly has anti-viral and anti-cancer properties. According to a study published in the Asian Journal of Traditional Medicines, coconut is supposedly an aphrodisiac and can even treat baldness.

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Nonetheless, as you noted, coconut milk oil has been on the nutrition no-no list for 50 years. This is because the fat in coconut oil is mostly saturated, the type found in lard. Saturated fats raise serum cholesterol, and high serum cholesterol is considered a major risk factor for heart disease.

Why has coconut oil somehow become healthy? Even back in the 1980s, researchers realized that Asian and South Pacific populations ate lots of coconut oil and had high cholesterol but somehow remained heart-healthy. According to one study of Pacific islanders, stroke and heart disease simply did not exist. Of course, they were physically active and ate fruits, vegetables, and fish, so that may have accounted for their healthy status.

Another reason for the favorable view of coconut oil is because it contains a type of saturated fat, called medium chain fatty acids, that may have positive health effects. For example, they appear to raise the so-called good cholesterol and increase satiety.

Still, the limited clinical data on these medium chain fatty acids has not been very convincing to the American Heart Association. They and other physician groups continue to recommend that consumers replace coconut oil with unsaturated oils like olive oil.

In the past few years, the entire dietary fat-heart disease link has been challenged. Perhaps, the argument goes, nutritionists have been unfair to saturated fat -- it’s the carbs, not the fat, that’s to blame for obesity and heart disease. That’s a topic for another day.

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